After Arafat

The death of their leader brings a moment of truth for the Palestinians -- the great challenge of averting deeper chaos, and a chance to step toward lasting peace.

By Mark Follman
Published November 12, 2004 12:32AM (UTC)
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The Arafat era is over. The man who won the Nobel Peace Prize but never an enduring peace for his people died in a Paris hospital early Thursday. Now, with the 75-year-old head of the Palestinian Authority gone, Palestinians, Israelis and world leaders are preparing for a watershed transition of Palestinian leadership.

For days to come there will be much contentious debate over Yasser Arafat's legacy -- a heroic lifelong revolutionary leader to many; a deeply corrupt dictator and terror kingpin to many others. His death, though anticipated days in advance, leaves leaders on both sides of the volatile Israeli-Palestinian conflict facing an unprecedented and urgent set of questions: Will a power vacuum in Arafat's wake prove fertile terrain for building a new Palestinian infrastructure and moving toward real peace, or will it unleash a chaotic period of Palestinian infighting, the ascendancy of militant factions, and yet more war with the Israelis?

Sorting through the many political and strategic crosscurrents is in some ways an exercise in chaos theory. Amy Hawthorne, a Middle East specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says numerous outcomes are possible even in the short term, with Arafat's death arriving at a volatile historical moment that is remarkable for its confluence of shifting tides. There is Ariel Sharon's so-called disengagement plan to pull out of Gaza and secure a grip on much of the West Bank -- already in progress, but dogged by sharp political resistance from Israelis even further to the political right of the prime minister. There is the freshly minted second Bush administration, emboldened by what it sees as an American mandate for, among other policies, its aggressive plan for transforming the Middle East through the use of military power.

And the Palestinian side itself is mired in a stewing volatility, with no real political center of gravity. Life for most in the occupied territories has been decimated by the four-year intifada, with an atmosphere of uncertainty made chronic by corrupt, fragmented leadership and infighting militant factions.

For now, Mahmoud Abbas, the PLO secretary general, is expected to take over the PLO and its largest faction, Fatah; and Ahmed Qureia, the current prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, will continue with the day-to-day running of government. They and other Palestinian officials have been scrambling to broadcast a message of unity and control -- but the reality of the near-term transition may be much murkier.

"In the short run I see a very messy, complicated situation," says Hawthorne. "There is no functioning Palestinian state or political system right now, so various militant factions like Hamas, rivals within Arafat's own Fatah group who want to challenge the old guard, and others are all operating in an environment in which central power is very weak to begin with. In many parts of the West Bank, and to some extent in Gaza, there already is a system of warlords essentially running local affairs. There will be multiple power struggles taking place at multiple levels."

Most experts agree that it is critical for Arafat's immediate successors to move swiftly toward a credible national election. Hawthorne says that a majority of Palestinians were defiant of Bush and Sharon's efforts to push out Arafat, their revered national symbol. But now that an opportunity for leadership change has materialized on its own, there is some hope of a groundswell for positive change.

Yet it remains unclear how a popular referendum would play out. "Abbas and Qureia don't have a popular support base; their power is derived from their ties to Arafat," Hawthorne says. "So if these two put themselves up for popular legitimation, it'll be a very risky situation, because they don't have nearly the measure of symbolic and emotional appeal to Palestinians that Arafat does. It's ironic that much of the popular disillusionment with the failures of the Palestinian Authority could land on them. They both played a very prominent role in the failed peace negotiations of the '90s, and both are viewed by many as corrupt."

The prospect for elections and how a new Palestinian leadership takes shape also depends greatly, of course, on the actions of the two biggest power brokers involved: Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush.

Robert Malley, who served on President Clinton's negotiating team at the Camp David peace talks and is now the Middle East and North Africa program director at the International Crisis Group, says the Israeli prime minister "probably sees opportunity in the danger" of the Palestinian transition. "Whether it was true or not, Sharon always said Arafat was the obstacle to peace. Arafat was his nemesis and embodied what he feared most, the Palestinian national movement, which in his eyes was a mortal threat to the state of Israel." Arafat's departure and the further weakness and instability it could bring on the Palestinian side, Malley says, is "probably something Sharon has wished for, for some time."

But Sharon may also fear the consequences of precisely what he has wanted.

"This could lead the international community and even Israelis to say, 'You said that you had no partner for peace while Arafat was there, but now that he's gone that can no longer be a reason,'" Malley says. "So first, it could change the way the Gaza withdrawal takes place by pressuring him for a more coordinated affair with the Palestinians. Beyond that, it starts putting pressure on him to do similar things in the West Bank and to start talking about a final peace agreement again. He may fear that because, in my view, his national security agenda for Israel does not entail a viable two-state solution that would include parts of East Jerusalem, and the other parameters laid out in the Clinton plan. That is not Sharon's vision."

How Arafat's passing fits into the broader Middle East strategy of the second Bush administration is also unclear. Many have argued that the road to enduring regional peace must lead through Jerusalem. In his first term in office, President Bush made Baghdad his top priority -- and like Sharon, often made Arafat a reason for nonengagement.

Malley says that now that Bush has been reelected, it's possible he will feel less beholden to the demands of his political base regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including those of the Jewish and evangelical Christian contingents that skew toward Sharon's hard-line stance. But the president's core beliefs on the issue remain relatively unknown.

"The next two years will be a real truth test of Bush," Malley says. "Deep down, what are his true personal convictions about how to resolve this conflict and how important it is? It's difficult to say; maybe some of the people close to him know, but otherwise I don't know how we measure that at this point. We know that his predecessors saw it not only as a priority, but as a great prize if they could achieve it."

"We know how the Bush administration behaved in their first four years," says author and New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman. "Their policy was animated by what I would call anti-Clintonism: 'If Clinton thought this was really important, then by definition it must not be important. If Clinton had this plan, then we must have our own plan.' In the end, it really amounted to benign neglect.

"Now that Bush never has to run for office again, we'll see whether he's actually going to look at the Middle East straight, or continue to look at it through the eyes of Karl Rove."

Speaking at a private gathering of foreign policy experts in Boston during the Democratic National Convention in July, Clinton, who worked obsessively toward the end of his second term in office to broker a lasting deal, said he believed that many Palestinians -- in spite of four years of war with the Israelis -- were ready and eager to negotiate toward peace. The dawn of a new era in Israeli-Palestinian relations has been heralded many times before, only to be swallowed into a vortex of bitter discontent and more violence. But with Arafat's anti-kinetic presence now gone, is a moderate Palestinian majority poised to emerge?

Friedman agrees that many Palestinians are prepared to settle on a two-state solution, as envisioned in the Clinton plan. While he believes the Palestinian claim to a "right of return" is untenable, he says that addressing the refugee issue is critical. "Within the context of East Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank, I think you've really got to find a formula for the majority of Palestinian refugees either to be resettled in those areas, or compensated."

"This is a great opportunity for stepped-up engagement of the right kind," says Malley. Whether or not there is an emergent moderate majority among Palestinians, Malley says it's most important for the U.S. to help build a legitimate political structure to "hold all the different parts together."

Friedman, who has followed the intractable Israeli-Palestinian narrative for three decades, says that overall he is hopeful about what comes next. Ultimately, he says, the greatest responsibility and opportunity for progress lies with the Palestinians themselves: the efforts needed to begin building credible government institutions and position themselves as a negotiating partner that would be "irresistible" to Israel.

That's an imperative, he adds, that Arafat never embraced.

"The mythology of Arafat is so strong, and there's no question he put the Palestinian cause on the world map," says Friedman. "But he never grew out of that role, and in that sense he did not serve his people well. If you talk to people in the region right now, in public you'll see a lot of crocodile tears among Palestinian officials. But in private I think all of them really recognize that this is a great moment of truth for them, and a great opportunity to build a different kind of Palestinian politics."

Mark Follman

Mark Follman is Salon's deputy news editor. Read his other articles here.

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2004 Elections Iraq War Middle East Terrorism